Visual effects encompasses many different interests and skill sets. That variety is exactly what makes working in this industry so attractive, but it also raises a lot of questions when you're starting out and looking for your first real job in VFX: How should I approach potential VFX studios? What exactly do recruiters look for? How will I differentiate myself? What qualities will make me successful?
To get some answers, we spoke to five VFX veterans about their earliest days in the business and asked them to share the most important lessons they learned with us.
1/ Be confident
When you're looking for your first job in VFX, it’s natural to be hesitant – you have a lot to learn. But your approach still needs to be grounded in confidence in your abilities, and a fundamental belief that you can and will learn. Here’s how Ellen Poon, Producer and VFX Supervisor at Lancet Films, described her first visual effects job to us:
“My first gig was at MPC...I was young and full of confidence. I knew how things were done under the hood, at least creatively, because I’d watched a lot of movies and was interested in design and animation. So, I walked in there proclaiming that I knew everything, and they believed me (laughs)… [But] I didn’t disappoint. I was really trying very hard to make sure that everything that was asked for was delivered. If I didn’t know how to do it, I would learn how or invent a way really quickly.”
No employer can reasonably expect for you to be an all-around expert on your first day, but if they’re going to place bets on someone who appears unsure or on someone, like Ellen, with an unmistakable faith in their capacity to learn, they’ll go with confidence every time.
"If I didn’t know how to do it, I would learn how or invent a way really quickly."
2/ Be proactive
The best VFX jobs are highly sought after, and you’ll make no progress towards your goals if you aren’t actively putting yourself forward as a candidate. Working hard (and creatively) to get one foot in the door of the best studios is sometimes all it takes for your career opportunities to open wide. Take it from C. Andrew Nelson, who very early in his career fast-tracked from Customer Support Rep to Art Technician to Lead Effects Animator at a George Lucas-led gaming studio.
"Just before I got hired...I was an accountant. I plotted to get out of there the whole time, sending my resume to every film studio, production company, and gaming studio in the Bay area… I noticed an ad for a Customer Support Representative at Lucas Film Games [and] I thought, ‘This is it.’
[At the interview], I was completely overdressed, but I was using all the techniques they tell you to use to ensure success, like mirroring and matching tone. The interviewer was laughing at all my jokes, and I felt like I was completely nailing it – until I discovered that she was just the screener. I was so rattled by the time I was taken to the person who was actually hiring. I was fidgeting and sweating, and none of my jokes were working. She was a stone-cold slab…I left there dejected but the next day, the stone-cold slab called [and] asked me when I could start."
So what does this tell us? Passivity doesn't pay (and mirroring isn't a bad thing either). Nelson was proactive, and in the end, that’s a better and more reliable path to a dream job in VFX than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
"In a creative field like VFX, your passions could provide some unexpected career plot twists."
3/ Follow your passions
The beauty of landing a job in visual effects is in the variety of people and talents it brings together. Whether your background is in computer programming, or lighting, or set design, or animation, there’s probably a niche for you to fill or a new insight your unique perspective can offer. Consider the example of Richard Hoover, Framestore’s VFX Supervisor on Blade Runner 2049:
“I had an unusual path into the industry. Growing up, I enjoyed movies like anyone else but wasn’t fixated on the visual elements, per se. I entered the University of Oregon, majoring in Fine Arts and Architecture. A graduate student delivered a guest lecture in one of my visual design classes on what was then called backlit animation, something that was in heavy use in commercials at the time. I thought it was really cool.
For the next year and a half, I worked on animation and backlit techniques, and that was a fairly easy transition because architecture provides you with a strong background in planning and executing a design. With that apprenticeship completed, I contacted that same graduate student, who had entered the film industry, and he found me a job making commercials.”
The connection between architecture and film is far from obvious, but in a creative field like VFX, your passions could provide some unexpected career plot twists.
"The whole [CG] department was about 45 people [and] a lot of the legends that worked on the original "Star Wars" were still there, like Lorne Peterson, Steve Gawley, and Dennis Muren."
4/ Find someone to look up to
No matter what you see yourself doing, someone somewhere is doing that thing – and killing it. But if you’re lucky and of course, proactive (you read #2, right?), they may be willing to mentor you and help to guide you on your path. And even if you never get to build that special relationship, just having people to look up to will give you something to shoot for, or someone to learn from. Stewart Lew, a professor and Chairman of the Visual Effects Society, had the good fortune of being thrown into a close-knit environment with VFX legends from his very first job:
“I worked at Boss Film Studios in Marina Del Rey, formed by ILM co-founder, Richard Edlund. He’s a legend in the business and was the visual effects designer and supervisor that worked on the original 'Star Wars' trilogy, as well as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark…'
While at Boss, I had a friend tell me that there were opportunities at ILM, so I submitted my demo reel and visited the campus for an interview. I was hired as a Technical Director in the Computer Graphics department. The whole [CG] department was about 45 people, so it was pretty small, and it was a tight-knit group [and] a lot of the legends that worked on the original Star Wars were still there, like Lorne Peterson, Steve Gawley, and Dennis Muren…It was very interesting to have these older, more accomplished artists mixing with the younger artists. To have so much experience and a mindset focused on pushing new boundaries, made the company a very special place.”
In an industry that evolves at a rapid pace, it’s easy to overlook the past, but seeking out the people who have a rep for changing the game and absorbing whatever knowledge you can from them, can only make your game stronger.
"I barely knew what previs/techvis was at the time but soon realized that this is what I was put on this earth to do."
5/ Try everything
It’s tempting to want to narrow your focus on one specific skill or one particular aspect of VFX, but you might be better off giving yourself space and the time to figure out what you’re truly passionate about. Casey Schatz, The Third Floor’s Head of Visual Production, described his early reluctance to specialize:
“I went to Cal Arts and majored in photography but also completed most of the theater lighting, cinematography, and experimental animation curriculums. It was a mixture of technical and artistic for me, which is one of the things Cal Arts encourages. When I was about to graduate, I thought, 'Oh no, now I have to choose one career path or the other.' If I were a VFX artist and never on set, I would miss that part of filmmaking. Likewise, I wouldn't have been happy on set all the time and not progressing in CG. I wouldn’t have been happy with only one discipline.
When my film showed at the end of the year, Tom Barron from ImageG approached me and asked when I could start at his motion control company. I barely knew what previs/techvis was at the time but soon realized that this is what I was put on this earth to do...I’ve never looked back.”
What does it take to have the confidence never to look back? The experience that comes with trying your hand at different things and ultimately identifying which work brings you the greatest creative buzz. Experiment with different disciplines and approaches, test out new techniques – do everything you can to broaden your potential.
Read more from VFX veterans Ellen Poon, C. Andrew Nelson, Richard Hoover, Stewart Lew, and Casey Schatz on AREA.
Curious about an aspect of life in 3D that we haven’t covered? Let us know in the comments.
Want a job in VFX and 3D animation? Make it happen by uploading your resume to the AREA job board.
Browse the latest listings from small boutiques to big studios. There's a seat of Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max waiting for you!